Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun

I’ve been meaning to write on this series/book for years, but because I’m less than enthusiastic about it, I haven’t quite had the impetus. Thinking back on it now, there are striking bits and pieces that have stayed with me, but the work as a whole has not. But because Gene Wolfe is praised to the skies by many “intellectual” sci-fi fans while being ignored by everyone else, I think he represents a position that is worth exploring. I.e., why is Wolfe still occupying a marginal place in literature in spite of praise from the likes of John Clute and Michael Swanwick, while Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson have made it into the mainstream canon?

I think there are discernible reasons for this. Wolfe may not be any worse than Stephenson or Gibson, but his particular weaknesses are much more problematic for non-sf readers than theirs. This is mostly for the sake of people who have already read the book, since I’ll be referring to lots of things not apparent until the very end of the book, if then. For those who haven’t read it, I suggest reading “The Death of Doctor Island,” a brilliant story that bests anything else I’ve read by Wolfe. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is also rather good (read all three novellas, not just the first) and deserves inclusion with other highlights of post-colonial literature.

On to the massive, ambitious, creative, and flawed The Book of the New Sun: first, there’s the style. Wolfe tends to employ a somewhat high-falutin’ style using words that appear to be neologisms but are anything but, drawn directly or indirectly from archaic words and usages, often Latin-derived. Some people I know find the resulting style insufferably pompous and awkward; I don’t, but nor do I find it to be one of Wolfe’s particular strengths. It does, however, serve its purpose, which is to evoke strangeness while preserving a depth of meaning, and I give Wolfe credit for this. Creating effective neologisms is very, very hard. (cf. “whuffie.”) What it doesn’t do is make the writing beautiful, which is one big minus in being accepted by the mainstream. Dick’s style is clunky but doesn’t call attention to itself; Wolfe’s is clunky, and it can’t be ignored.

The next issue is the plot. Wolfe is very fond of elision and narrative unreliability. Central plot points are skipped over and only referred to in retrospect. Others are presented in a highly misdirecting manner. And others are simply never cleared up. Because Wolfe’s ideas manifest themselves primarily through plot machinations, this is more of a problem than it would be in, for instance, a Faulkner novel. In so far as the entire series revolves around an obliquely laid out science-fiction scenario having to do with installing a white hole into the sun, it’s necessary to derive the plot sequence properly in order to make sense of the layers of (mostly Christian) symbolism and allegory that Wolfe has quite definitely laid into the series. And often just to figure out what has actually happened. A flurry of significant answers are delivered at the very end of the series, but these following questions, as far as I could tell, do not have apparent answers:

  1. Why does the Claw only work sometimes?
  2. Why does Hethor want to kill Severian?
  3. Is Little Severian just coincidentally a little boy with the same name, or is he the next Severian, or Severian himself?
  4. Does Typhon have any significance outside of the section in which he appears?
  5. Was Severian raised in the prisoner/starship cave?
  6. Who is Severian’s sister?
  7. Isn’t it, like, really dangerous to have the autarch pass from one body to the next, relying on the alzabo-esque transition to keep the line going, when the autarch tends to behave in wildly unsafe ways?
  8. What other characters are “projections” of the machines of the hierodules? Dorcas?
  9. Is Severian the conciliator?

People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles, but unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon, Wolfe puts so much effort into the hints and partial answers that it very much appears as though things will come together. And they partly do. Moreover, their not coming together would not serve any evident thematic purpose. When Gravity’s Rainbow falls apart, it ties into themes and motifs that have been present from the very first page. Wolfe’s story of rebirth and redemption is anything but entropic and chaotic.

But where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian’s manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian’s motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian’s lies, we can’t derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian’s words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.

For all their faults, the other writers mentioned above make their metaphysics and their internal structures quite clear. Even the underrated Christopher Priest, who has made an art of unreliable narrators, is sure to place them within a determinate (or determinately indeterminate) context. But Wolfe uses these devices without appearing to have a larger sense of what they might mean; like the lesser Oulipo novels, they’re just a game. And it is this myopia that I think is his greatest debt to the flaws of science-fiction, and the reason why his crossover remains unlikely.